A new era for Footscray as apartment towers go up and younger people buy in

PUBLICATION: Domain Online

A long-awaited football win for the Western Bulldogs is not the only sign of change in the once proud blue-collar neighbourhood. The suburb itself is transforming — and quickly.

Footscray is undergoing an apartment boom, with more than 1350 units approved by local council in 2015. It is a figure ten times the amount approved in 2013, building data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows. And, as the towers go up, an affluent crowd is moving in.

A suburb built by its multicultural residents, Footscray has for decades opened its arms to newly arrived migrant communities, including Italian, Yugoslavian,Vietnamese and East African. Amid concern about the future for those very communities, it is welcoming change from the next generation; those buying into the suburb’s mushrooming medium and high density apartment stock.

Nicole Mayo is among a wave of young professionals writing the suburb’s next chapter. The 33-year-old food sales representative, who rents in St Kilda, recently bought her first apartment in Footscray.

“Footscray is where St Kilda was years ago,” Ms Mayo said. “I hope [Barkly Street] looks like Acland Street in ten years. I hope there’s more alfresco cafes and bars where you can go and have a drink.”

She is confident her two bedroom apartment, found in boutique development The Hugo, will be a better investment over time than its high rise equivalents being built in Footscray’s CBD, along the Maribyrnong River and even around the Whitten Oval.

The sheer number of new apartments being approved is significant compared to the rest of Melbourne, RMIT University senior planning lecturer Joe Hurley said, but planning policy in the City of Maribyrnong had long been in place to encourage such intensification.

“Footscray is the right place for this kind of development,” Dr Hurley said, pointing to existing infrastructure, including public transport. “You have a council that has written in policy an expectation that there is capacity to grow and its hasn’t been met until recently.”

Dean Johnson, director of Sweeneys Yarraville, has worked in the inner west real estate market for 30 years. He said the demographic of Footscray had changed with each wave of migration and was already transitioning into its next phase.

Many of the residents who had lived there for years were now selling up to move further west, into areas like St Albans and Caroline Springs, he said.

“People are selling their smaller homes in Footscray, cashing in and buying a larger house further out,” he said.

But such a displacement, or the gentrifyication of Footscray, has experts concerned.

“I wouldn’t advocate gentrification, I would caution it,” Dr Hurley said. “One of the important policy questions with places like Footscray is, what kind of development and housing options are available for a wide cross section of people?”

Denis Nelthorpe, chief executive of WEstjustice, said he was concerned about the effects of gentrification on newly arrived communities, who had traditionally been drawn to Footscray by family or cultural links.

“They are now being pushed into the outer regions of Wyndham, Melton and far reaches of Brimbank, where services are a lot harder to access,” Mr Nelthorpe said.

“Even areas around Braybrook and Sunshine are also beginning to gentrify as well, it probably won’t be too long before the whole of Maribyrnong has gentrified.”

City of Maribyrnong mayor Cameron McDonald was confident demand from young professionals and families would meet supply.

“It’s not like City Road [in Southbank] or the IKEA precinct in Richmond … there is a lot of existing infrastructure that I think that mitigates a lot of the risk,” Cr McDonald said.

He said the new population of young people coming in with discretionary cash would only benefit the suburb and help it shed its stigma.

“These people actually drive change, they are demanding, they have good disposable income,” he said.

“The stereotypical Footscray will fade away, once these towers are finished and once the people are moving in, I think we’ll see lots of dramatic change.”